Fern Britton presents the competitive cookery series Culinary Genius. After two challenges the nine contestants are whittled down to three, who face the cook-off.
A few months ago I was sent a press release to publish on this blog, in case it might have been of interest to my readers. Being a bit bored at the time, having started my maternity leave but not having had the baby yet, for some reason that right now I cannot imagine, I decided to apply for the show myself. That’s what too much time on your hands does, I guess.
A couple of weeks later, in full chaos post baby arrival, lack of sleep, lack of everything ‘normal’, I was contacted by the production company saying they’d love to do a casting call with me as I had been pre selected for the show. Dear me, I thought.. why did I even apply? I tried to back out, and also missed a couple of skype calls primarily due to the fact that the first few weeks proved as challenging and as hard as anyone who’s had a baby had told me.
Finally, one morning, I managed to brush my hair (washing was still out of the question back then), wear a decent, clean shirt and sat in a tidy room to take the skype call. I was asked a few, food related questions (whom do I cook for, what is my go to dish etc), and was also told how the show would work. 9 contestants per episode go through a first skills’ test which involves chopping, and how are my knife skills? The first alarm bells started to ring, as my knife skills are very basic. The second skills’ test completely finished off the idea of failure for me, as it would involve filleting a piece of meat or fish, and I have done pretty much nothing of sort. The skype call was over and I went back to my baby routine, hoping that I would never be called back and I could simply forget about the whole thing.
Lo and behold a couple of weeks later I get a phone call from the production team saying they’d love to have me on the show. Panic! They gave me a date for filming and I thought I’d escaped it since it was a day I had tickets to see Derren Brown in the evening ad there was no chance I’d miss it. But the show’s team managed to move things around and gave me another date… at which point, as per my usual, I could not really find an excuse to refuse (my husband knows this well since this is how he managed to get a date with me!).
The day of filming came, and I was feeling no love for being a contestant on a tv show, with my sleep deprived looks, general tiredness, my own personal shyness for the cameras (see the lack of photos of myself on this blog) and feeling awful about laving husband at home with baby and dog. I got to the ITV studios and sat waiting to be picked up in the reception area. Here, I met two other contestants for the same episode as myself, James and Louise. We got on straight away, and laughed at the fact that none of us had practiced, none of us really knew why we’d applied and all of us were really nervous about the whole thing.
We then got taken upstairs by the friendly girls of the casting team and met the other six contestants in our changing room, where we waited a couple of hours, being briefed, chatting and generally getting our nerves higher and higher. Still, I did manage to notice a few red printed A4s on all the rooms surrounding ours, which grabbed my attention and kept me distracted for a bit. More on this later on.
We were finally told which gust chefs would have been on our show and it was not, to our disappointment, Gordon, but Jean Christophe Novelli which was actually my next best pick… Still, it did nothing to calm me or my fellow contestants down! Time to go filming! We were mike’d up, briefed again and it was time to enter the studio… which had a live audience! small but big enough to add to the pressure. We were introduced to Jean Christophe and Fern (who was absolutely lovely despite being, I am sure, pretty tired as they spent the whole day filming back to back).
First task was to chop a vegetable or a fruit. Two days before filming my good friend Corinne had sent her lovely husband Dom to show me a bit of knife skills as he’s a professional chef himself. Indeed, very patiently, he had shown me lots of useful tips, from holding a knife properly to chopping tomatoes and onions and other veggies in various shapes including julienne and brunoise. When we lifted the cloches, we saw we were meant to cut ginger into julienne and brunoise in fact! I felt initially confident.. I could do this! Novelli demo’d the task for us and off we went. We had 5 minutes to cut as much ginger as we could, however we had to do it properly has he had shown us. 5 minutes absolutely flew by. I wasted absolutely ages peeling the ginger with the back of the knife. I should have just peeled it as I am used to and be done with it – I did not have enough chopped ginger! Still, it turned out I did better than others, and I managed to pass the first test. I feel I owe this small victory to Dom and his patience for sure.
Next task. When we lifted the cloches, my face dropped. A massive, very expensive looking beef piece. Jean Christophe showed us what he wanted us to do. Prepare two steaks and a cote de boeuf! I think we were all a bit shocked. None of us had ever done anything like this, let alone bought it. I had enjoyed a cote de boeuf a couple of times in restaurants, but such a beautiful cut of meat is surely a one off. We had ten minutes for the task, and I thought to myself at this point, I can get out, it is the second task, I am tired, I want to go home. Yet, once you are into it, you carry on at the best of your ability and it seems that I did, because I was once again among the ones that passed this challenge too. Final 3! I was delighted to see that James was also in the final three. We patted each other on the back, said goodbye to the others and at the same time started thinking what to do next.
The final task was some sort of invention test. With the beautiful steaks we had cut and the ginger, we had 25 minutes to prepare a dish, using as many ingredients from the ‘larder’ as we wanted, but we were only given 2 minutes to select such ingredients. I couldn’t even find my ‘box’ so this task didn’t start well. A steak! What can you do with a steak, without risking killing it in the process (eg, with a stir fry). I racked my brain thinking time is short, what do I do? The timer started and, to make things even trickier, I had loads of ‘wardrobe malfunctions’: no water in my sink, stuck stove, impossible to use blender and oven. Once again, time just went so quickly, I have a new found respect for any time pressure cooking show! Unbelievable. I plated up, completely forgetting some of the techniques I had implemented in the past on presentation, and not even making it on time to add asparagus which I left in the boiling pan. Yet I had a finished dish, which was all that matter.
Fern and Jean Christophe proceeded to tasting our three dishes, and mine did not bode well. JC said he would not serve mine to his dog, so ugly it looked and he was pretty right, the colours not very appealing nor the styling of yet. Still, I must have done something right because he was then really complimentary about the flavours and textures and particularly impressed by the ‘cauliflower cous cous’ I had served (for this idea I also have someone else to thank).
And the winner is…
After some deliberation time, it was time for the two presenters to announce the winner, who would have found £1000 lifting his or her own cloche. I was so so tired at this point, all I could think of was going home. So forgive my lack of enthusiastic expression when I saw the cash under my cloche! I was the winner, or as the show’s title, a culinary genius! A nice surprise, and at the end, some kind words from the chef which made me very happy. Despite the lack of sleep and practice, I still had some cooking abilities! Off camera, a lot of the crew tasted my dish too, and they all seemed to enjoy it, credit also to a beautiful piece of meat which I am glad I did a good job with. What would I do with the money, Fern asked me? Well you have to watch to hear my answer, but you can probably guess!
Icing on the cake
Finally, after a few hours, we went back upstairs to grab our stuff. I could not wait to call bmcboy and tell him all his baby ad dog sitting hours had been worth the effort. As we walked towards our changing room, we were stopped for a moment, as a group of people were coming our way towards the studios. OH MY GOD! I hugged Mark, beaming with joy: Depeche Mode! Andy, Dave and Martin were walking past! I said a few words, made a joke and then once in the changing room, started literally jumping around the room. One of my favourite bands of all time had just brushed past me. Forget the money, this for me was the perfect ending to a long but fun and exciting day. It was their logo I had spotted on those A4s all around us and got so excited …
And to think I did not even want to do it at all…
- According to ITV : watch me on Culinary Genius on ITV Player.